Children's Voice Mar/Apr 2006

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Parenting Pages

The Down to Earth Dad

Dads, Early and Often!

By Patrick Mitchell

As the father of two soon-to-be preschoolers and one child well past preschool, I'm well aware of the depth of personality and amazing ability children possess in the early years. How dads consciously and inadvertently shape personality and ability intrigues me, and I've asked prominent child development experts to share their thoughts on the topic.

The biggest impact fathers have on their sons is during the early years, said Kyle Pruett, international authority on child development, esteemed professor of psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center, and a clinical psychiatrist specializing in infants, children, adolescents, and families. He was generalizing and providing a printable answer to my question, "When does a father have the greatest influence on his son?"

"The big influence fathers have on their sons shows up when gender identity issues come up around age 3 or 4," Pruett says. "They're pretty sure they have to be either one or the other (a boy or girl)...and they start looking to their dads for the rules about masculine behavior."

Girls need their dads in the early years, too, but the biggest impact they have on their daughters comes later, during the teen years, explains Ross Parke, distinguished professor, Presidential Chair, and Director of the Center for Family Studies at the University of California, Riverside. "Girls often look to their fathers for approval. She looks to him for subtle interpretations of her femininity. She tests her mannerisms and expressions on her father." Dads who establish good early relationships with their daughters and maintain that closeness are poised to make significant contributions to their daughters' development later on.

Fathers who roll out the red carpet of interactive skill-building opportunities for their preschoolers--verbal and nonverbal tasks and age-appropriate challenges of all sorts--will have a major influence, says Developmental Psychologist Michael Lamb, professor of psychology at Cambridge University. This preeminent child development researcher explains preschool children are much more competent, insightful, thoughtful, and curious than we parents give them credit for.

Historically, Lamb notes, dads have been only intermittently involved with their infants and preschool children. "Lots of fathers are uncertain about interaction and involvement with little babies, whereas they feel much more confident once the children reach the preschool age and older.

"For those fathers in particular, the preschool years offer a very inviting opportunity to get involved. Preschool children are all naturally very inviting, they are eager, they're curious, they're verbal, they're eager to get involved in physical play activities, which some fathers enjoy doing with them. For some fathers, the preschool years expand the type of relationships they already have with their kids, and for others it provides the entry point where they feel most comfortable really connecting with and doing things with their children."

That bit of good news is well known by many Head Start and Early Head Start professionals, teachers, child and family advocates, child care providers, and practitioners, who have learned that men can be enticed to participate in program activities during the early years. The trick is making it happen. The men are motivated, but getting them through the door and to stick around is often the biggest challenge. Once the men start interacting with their own children, though, and with other people's children at the child care center or preschool, the male-involvement hopes and dreams of professionals at the programs can flourish.

"The bonding always comes out of the interaction," Lamb says. "I think what makes the interaction easier with preschoolers is the fact that they are more verbal and they're more competent in lots of ways, so that opens up lots of new opportunities and avenues for fathers and children to connect with one   another.

"It's probably the most significant relationship they're likely to have. Dads are in a position where they can have a tremendous impact on their child's development--in every aspect of their child's development--and really make a difference in the long-term quality of that child's life, simply by virtue of their commitment to, engagement in, and participation in that relationship.

"I think dads need to know how incredibly competent preschool children are," Lamb continues, "how much more insightful, thoughtful, and curious they are than we give them credit for. Most of us, unfortunately, never have the opportunity or take the time to really listen to children. Because it really is miraculous--and that's the only term I can think of--how incredibly fast this developmental process unfolds."

Equally miraculous is the almost unexplainable but ever so refreshing synergy that so obviously develops among dads, programs, and preschool children when it all comes together in early childhood education and child care settings. Dads profoundly shape their children's lives. Encouraging fathers to get involved early, and often, is surely in our children's best interest.

A regular contributor to Children's Voice, Patrick Mitchell publishes a monthly newsletter, The Down to Earth Dad, from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and facilitates the Dads Matter! ProjectTM for early childhood programs, schools, and child- and family-serving organizations. He conducts keynote addresses, workshops, and inservice and preservice trainings. To reserve Patrick Mitchell for speaking engagements, or to implement the Dads Matter! ProjectTM for your families and community partners, call him toll-free at 877/282-DADS, or e-mail him at patrick@downtoearthdad.org. Website: www.DownToEarthDad.org.


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